Written by Simon Kurt Unsworth — The horror and crime genres have so much in common – strong plotting, and bad things happen to people whether they’re good or not – that it’s no surprise that there seems to be an ever increasing number of authors writing supernatural thrillers. However good it may sound in theory, in practice results are mixed. For every John Connolly or Norman Partridge, there are a dozen or more watered down urban fantasies where one or other part of the equation just doesn’t add up. Too often, for example, a writer lets his or her detective off too easily, their magic effectively meaning you just never believe the character is in peril.
Enter then, Simon Kurt Unsworth, a writer with real chops, a World Fantasy Award winner, and with several well-regarded short-story collections behind him. The Devil’s Detective is his first novel, and also his first with a major publication house.
The story is set, appropriately enough, in Hell, and its protagonist is Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s three Information Men. Like all of Hell’s human inhabitants, they are sinners; damned for all eternity to suffer torment, never knowing which sin in their mortal life sent them here. After their deaths, most likely at the hands of a demon, their bodies will burn in the Garden of Fire, and their souls will return to the sea of Limbo, awaiting collection, after which the whole process will start again. The only way to break this cycle is to be chosen for elevation, a process whereby representatives of Heaven and Hell barter souls in a manner so random that the apparent hope the process provides is actually a clever way of adding another layer of misery.
Part of the suffering for Thomas, Gordie and Summer is having to watch the demons abuse their human victims on a daily basis, and their powerlessness to do anything about it. In Hell after all, men are supposed to die. One such man has been found by the shore of the Solomon Water, his body having been subject to all manner of indignities including rape. It is clear he had been allocated a role as a Genevieve, that is to say a prostitute for the demons. When it is discovered the victim is without a soul, the implication is his killer must be a very powerful demon indeed, and Thomas expects to be warned off the case by his supervisor, Elderflower. To his surprise, the trio are encouraged to continue, having been told that Hell’s Bureaucracy are pleased with his efforts. Their investigation takes them through the many districts of Hell, and eventually to Crow Heights where Hell’s most ancient and powerful demons, even Satan himself, are rumoured to live. But what chance do three humans have in Hell?
If you hadn’t already guessed, this is a far darker story than the usual urban fantasy fare. The fear, the pain and physical indignity, and the sheer misery of Hell are depicted clearly. The camera doesn’t turn away so to speak. Unsworth is at home with the horror, and these are amongst the strongest parts of the book. For a debut attempt, the author has a good crack at the procedural aspects, and the familiar trope of the disillusioned detective rediscovering his purpose during an investigation is handled deftly.
Unfortunately, it may prove a little too easy for regular mystery readers to work out the killer’s identity in The Devil’s Detective. It is here where the author’s unfamiliarity with the genre shows up most. By trying to hard to convince us of the killer’s innocence, he ends up giving the game away. Still, it is the only significant weakness in a supernatural thriller that otherwise delivers on its promises.
The Devil’s Detective comes out 12 March.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars